Talking Pictures

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Hollywood and the US Civil War

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2013


The re-issue of Gone With the Wind (Selznick International Pictures, 1939) for the tenth time is an apt occasion to revisit this key modern conflict and the feature films that dramatise it. At the start of the year UK audiences were able to see Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln (Dreamworks, 2012). And recently the Leeds International Film Festival screened Chris Aska’s The Retrieval (2013), set during the Civil War and devoting more screen time to Afro-American characters caught up in that conflict that any film I can remember.

The Civil War between the North and the South commenced in April 1861. In February of that year seven Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy: later they were joined by four more states. Whilst officially about secession or the Union the basic cause was the slave economy of the Southern States. The South surrendered in April 1865. Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation proclamation in September 1862. Congress enacted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery, in December 1865. This was in many ways the first modern war and an extremely bloody conflict. It was followed by Reconstruction in the South. However, Negro or Afro-American rights were not seriously implemented and the founding of the Ku Klux Klan bought a reign of terror that enforced an apartheid regime and the repression of black society.

Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Pepper, in their American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2005) discuss a number of the more recent films. Their main focus is how these films can be sited in historical enquiry rather than just as entertainment. Their main analytical comment is that: “At stake here is the significance of Hollywood’s interest in the Civil War and the role that films about the subject have tended to play in the task of reconciling competing versions of what constitutes the United States, socially, culturally and politically. Indeed the relative success of this task can be seen in the fact that, according to Stephen Bates, this bloodiest, costliest and most divisive of all American conflicts is now widely regarded ‘as a curiously blame-free experience.” Their treatment tends to address the films as texts rather than performances. And, as their use of ‘American’ demonstrates, they are not free of the myopia of US writers regarding the greater Americas – scene of far worse conflicts like the genocide against the North American Indians or the savage counter-revolutions aided and abetted by the USA. At the same time they do raise discuss intriguing aspects of such film treatments.

Despite their defeat the South managed to win a substantial part of the subsequent war of representation. Both Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel and the film adaptation offer a romanticised view of the Confederacy and its operation of slavery. This falls into a long tradition of the Hollywood Studios. In the early days when the town was first being colonised by the moviemakers the Civil War was a frequent subject. The key example is an epic film directed by the pioneer D. W. Griffith. The Birth of a Nation,  (Epoch, 1915), in black and white, running 185 minutes at 16 fps. The screenplay by Griffith and Frank E. Woods was adapted from a notorious racist novel and play by Thomas Dixon Jnr. The cinematography was by another important pioneer G. W. [Billy] Bitzer. The stars were regulars in Griffith films, including Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Lilian Gish, Robert Harron and Wallace Reid.

An opening title card presents the theme of the film.

An opening title card presents the theme of the film.

The plot follows two families caught up in the war, one northern one southern. However, the sympathy is all with the South. The depiction of the Negroes [Afro-Americans] is grotesque and the film actually has the Ku Klux Klan as heroes saving the South in the Reconstruction.

While the film sparked ‘race riots’ it was also a great success. Louis B. Mayer, was one distributor who made a fortune out of the film, leading to the major Studio MGM

In the sound era the Civil War was a less frequent subject, with the exception of westerns. However, these were usually set in the West of the USA where North and South competed for new territory. There was little address of the issue of slavery. A good example if Santa Fe Trail, (Warner 1940). The film deals with the famous incident involving John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. But the main focus of the film is on the competition between Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart and Ronald Reagan as George Custer for the affections of Olivia De Havilland as Kit Halliday. The typical western had even less of the Civil War events and issues, and almost never broached the topic of slavery.

One star movie of the 1930s involves Shirley Temple. The Littlest Rebel, (C20th Fox, 1935). Directed by David Butler, written by Edwin Burke and adapted from a play by Edward Peple. The plot involves a southern girl going to Washington to persuade President Lincoln to release her captive father. Accompanying Temple on the journey is the great Afro-American dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who is reduced to a sort of Uncle Tom figure.

Gone With the Wind came out in 1939 and its huge success reinforced the romanticised view of the Confederacy in Hollywood. David O. Selznick, who was the main creative force behind the film, was sensitive to the views of the black or coloured population. He was well aware of the campaigns and riots that had been sparked by the earlier The Birth of a Nation. The term ‘nigger’ which appears frequently in the book was [with I think one exception] deleted in the film script. And the post-war sequence where the heroine Scarlet O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is accosted near to a black shantytown was changed. In the book this defilement of her honour produces retribution by the Ku Klux Klan. In the film the white vigilantes are a group of concerned southerners rather than the organised racist Klan.

Even so the film presents a colourful and attractive representation of the Southern plantation society. The main Afro-American characters are smiling and subservient. One improvement on the book is that Mitchell’s version of Negro language, which is hard to read on the printed page, is now voiced and at least has greeter clarity. The star performer of this group is Hattie McDaniel as Mammy. She deservedly won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress; but one feels this was more down to the guilty feelings of the Academy Members. It was another decade before another Afro-American performer again won the Best Supporting Actress Award: Ethel Waters for Pinky (C20th century Fox, 1949). The first major Oscar was finally won by Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field (United Artist, 1963). He had already failed to win an Oscar for the superior The Defiant Ones (United Artists, 1958).

As late as 1957 there was expensive copy of the Selznick film, Raintree County, (MGM 1957). In Technicolor and Panavision, directed by Edward Dmytryk and written by Millard Kaufman from the novel by Ross Lockridge. A southern belle romances through the civil war until the conflict disrupts her life. It starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff.  More recently writer and director Ronald F. Maxwell produced Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003) for both US television and as feature films. Both films’ sympathies are clearly with the Confederacy. And both are more concerned with recreating battles than addressing the politics of the war or of slavery. In Gettysburg Jeff Daniel’s liberal Northern Officer makes a speech full of humanist values, but the film’s central hero is General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen). In Gods and Generals we momentarily see Afro-Americans caught up as civilians flee a battle zone, but the focus on the film is the detailed recreation of a famous battle. Films like The Outlaw Josey Wales (Warner / Malpaso 1976) or The Beguiled (Universal / Malpaso 1971) use the period as a backdrop for fairly conventional plots from the western genre.

The counter point of view has been on offer over the years, but for much of the time only outside Hollywood. From the teens to the 1950s there was an alternative ‘race cinema’ in the USA. This resulted from policies of segregation, in the North as well as the South. This low-budget industry was centred on Chicago. I have not come across a ‘race film’ that directly deals with the Civil War. However, there are several films by a noted director, Oscar Micheaux, that do consciously critique US racism. The most famous film is Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920). The film is set in the then contemporary USA, but the important characters are all Afro-Americans and at the centre of the film is a black heroine. The film contained [when not censured] the most graphic depiction of a lynching in early US cinema.


1927 saw one of a number of film versions of Harriet Beecher’ Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Universal). The book had appeared before the Civil War and was an important factor in the growing consciousness against slavery. Whilst the Uncle Tom of the book and film is a rather servile black character, hence the derogatory association with the name, the book does depict some of the brutality and exploitation of the slave system.

There then seems to be a long, long hiatus until further progressive viewpoints appear. In the 1950s Hollywood finally consciously addressed the large black audience in the USA. This led to the demise of the ‘race films’, though since the advent of sound they had been beholden to white financiers because of the increased costs of production. In the 1950s we see films that overtly address the interests of Afro-Americans. Sidney Poitier’s duo with Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones is an important milestone in a mildly liberal representation of ‘”race” relations. To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal-International, 1962) goes back to the 1930s to present an argument against racial prejudice in the South. Even so, the dominant role of that of a white lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck).

US Television was ahead of cinema in addressing the issue of racism, civil rights and the long history that underlay this. So Roots (1977) is a seminal series for this area, and demonstrated the possibilities of large audiences that would make the subject commercial. Whatever its limitations it was well in advance of the Hollywood feature film. Television seems to have also led the way with regard to the Civil War. In 1959 appeared Freedom Road: originally a 4-hour Tele-drama it was slimmed down to a 100 minute feature film. Mohamed Ali played a black leader of a rebellion on the post-Civil War South.

Then in 1989 came Glory, (Columbia Tri-Star) in Technicolor and Panavision. Adapted from Kevin Jarre’s book Lay this Laurel together with One Gallant Hour by Peter Burchard and the archived letters of Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) who was commanding officer of the first Northern Black regiment of the Civil War: led by white officers. The film enjoys a cast of rising Afro-American Hollywood stars, including Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.  Its liberalism is undercut by the failure to follow the historical record, and this contributes to the sense that the film’s focus are white liberals rather than the black soldiers fighting for the Union and their freedom.

Ride With the Devil(Universal 1999) was adapted from the Woe to Live on by Daniel Woodrell, adapted by James Schamus and directed by Ang Lee. The film follows the actions of a band of Confederate irregulars in the State of Missouri, which did not secede in 1861. However, the state was divided into supporters of the Union and of the Confederacy. The actions and battles shown are brutal and cruel: they include the now infamous massacre in the Kansas town of Lawrence, led by Quantrill’s Raiders. The centre of the tale is young Jake Roedel (Toby Maguire), of Dutch origins, who break with his father, who is a Union supporter. In the course of the actions Jake becomes disillusioned with the brutality. He also develops a friendship with a freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) who also rides with the irregulars. By the end of the film Jake [who has acquired a wife and child) and Daniel opt out of the war, now in its dying days. Jake heads for California, Daniel to Texas to find and free his mother, still a slave. The two part as friends and with mutual respect. McCrisken and Pepper see the film as subverting much of the conventional Hollywood treatment of the Civil War. There is the Southern white and black friendship, and the brutal and irreconcilable conflict between North and South. They suggest that “it is such a distinctive and welcome historical film because unlike say, The Patriot or Glory, it embraces ambivalence and counters what might be called a contemporary trend towards the fixing of order and the allocation of ideas and people to particular narrow roles.” Certainly, the plot deals with events and issues that are unusual in a Hollywood film on this subject. However, within that the characters are fairly conventional, as is the film’s closure – Jake and Daniel opt out and leave: a common trope in US war films. By opting out they [and we] avoid the Reconstruction, which is an integral part of the Civil War story.

Moreover the style of the film does tend to the conventional. The focus of the camera is frequently the action or the key characters. The mise en scène is typical of the western, which this film partly fits within. And the music reinforces this sense of the conventional. The music comes and goes, but it most frequently accompanies the Confederate irregulars, upbeat orchestral rhythms as they ride into battle. This is true even of the Lawrence massacre sequence, though the music dies away when Jake has to confront the violence being penetrated on civilians. The film does fall outside the ‘blame-free experience ‘ of many Civil War films. But the politics of the war are not directly addressed and the treatment of the issue of slavery through the character of Daniel dramatises this in personal relations rather than in wider social relations. The last point is a criticism that McCrisken and Pepper make of both Glory and Amistad.

Which bring us to 2013 and the three releases in this year. Lincoln is the third Stephen Spielberg film to address the issue of ‘race’ in US history. The Color Purple (Warner / Amblin, 1985) is adapted from seminal novel by Alice Walker. Her epistolary form is transformed into a linear narrative. This follows the brutal life of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) in a poor black family in the first half of the C20th. Whilst the film lacks the great power of the book, its depiction of the twin oppressions of racism and misogyny is impressive. I would judge that it is the best of Spielberg’s efforts in this area.

Amistad (Dreamworks / Home Box Office, 1997) deals with a historical case involving the US legal system and a slave ship in the years before the Civil War. The film actually makes a fairly good fist of presenting sympathetic and intelligent Africans. However, as is usually the case in Hollywood, the central focus is occupied by white characters, played my major stars like Antony Hopkins and Matthew McConnaughey. The liberalism is worthy rather than compelling.

This also besets Lincoln, though the film overall is better scripted [by Tony Kushner and partly based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin) and directed. The major problem is the lack of a noticeable black presence. There is a post-battle scene at the outset where President Lincoln [Daniel-Day Lewis) is confronted by one of the Afro-Americans serving in the Union army. In the course of the film we see the black housekeeper and partner of anti-slavery campaigner Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). But the actual Afro-American campaigners against slavery and for legal enactment are only seen briefly as a Congressman salutes them, sitting in the gallery overlooking the debate on the Emancipation Bill. An argument has been made that the film’s focus is how Lincoln steered this contentious legislation through Congress. However, the black campaign is part of that story. And moreover, Hollywood has never worried about additional plot when it feels this will entice an audience. Glory at least gives Frederick Douglas a line of dialogue. I would rather pass over Django Unchained (Weinstein and Columbia, also released here in 2013) in silence.


Which brings us to The Retrieval (2013) written and directed by Chris Eska. The film is on release in the USA, France and Germany but does not yet have an UK distributor. It was shown at the Leeds International Film Festival. Chris Eska came along for a Q & A. He commented that some aspects of the film had changed due to Producer pressure, including the ending, which makes the film seem fairly conventional. However, in terms of screen time this is seminal. I think only black independent productions such as Nothing but a Man (Directed by Michael Roemer in 1964), also released this year by the bfi, have greater focus on Afro-Americans. Paralleling Ride Like the Devil it follows the actions of a Southern gang hunting down runaway slaves, two of the gang are black. However they are sent off on a mission to bring a wanted Negro back down for the reward, actually for a revenge killing. Their journey north and the return take them across a landscape where the invading Union army fights the dwindling Confederate forces. It also takes them pass a Bayou encampment of runaway slaves. The journey occupies approximately 60 minutes of the 93-minute film. We come to know the Afro-American trio well [Ashton Sanders as Will, Tishuan Scott as Nate, Keston John as Marcus] but also their situations and the forces that placed them where they are. As the director commented, this is a film more about character than plot, which is one of its strengths. I am sure that the ghosts of Hattie McDaniel and her fellow black cast members would have relished seeing this film.

One Response to “Hollywood and the US Civil War”

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